Randy Jordan noticed a different attitude from Chris Thompson during the Washington Redskins’ practice last Thursday. Jordan, the running backs coach, saw Thompson continually over-running holes and missing lanes before finally pulling him aside and asking him what was going on.
“Man, I’m just too excited right now,” Thompson told him.
The second-year running back had found out earlier in the day that he would be signed off the Redskins’ practice squad to the active roster, allowing him to participate in that Sunday’s game against the New York Giants.
For the first time in over a year, Thompson would travel with his teammates, dress for the game and, in all likelihood, step foot onto the field and play a few downs. He did just that, running three times for 12 yards and catching three passes for 22 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown reception — the first of his professional career — in the second quarter.
Thompson is among several unproven players who have gotten an opportunity to play for the Redskins in the final month of the season, but those chances have almost exclusively come as the result of an injury.
Though the Redskins enter Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles with a 3-11 record after six consecutive losses, the coaches have shied away from merely throwing young players out onto the field to see what they’re worth. The games may be fruitless for Washington, but they’re not exhibitions, either.
“We’re still trying to win football games,” said coach Jay Gruden. “The veterans want to play.”
Added to the 53-man roster a week ago, Thompson replaced Roy Helu, who has battled turf toe in his left foot and was unable to play against the Giants. He and Silas Redd, an undrafted rookie running back, combined to take 33 of the Redskins’ 70 offensive snaps in that game — just shy of 50 percent.
Redd, who played 35 snaps before Sunday, had one carry and caught three passes for 62 yards, easily a season high in receiving. A stalwart on the kickoff coverage unit this season, Redd has played in all but one game — Nov. 2 against Minnesota, when he injured his back in a pregame collision between two buses carrying Redskins players and coaches.
As the Redskins’ No. 3 running back, Redd knows going into each game that his workload is going to be infrequent. On the chance that something happens — like on Dec. 7 against St. Louis, when Helu left the game because of injury and Redd played 11 snaps — he needs to be prepared.
“You want to make sure you’re in tune with [the game plan], but just even on game day and the in-game and on-field adjustments, you want to be locked in because you never know what can happen,” Redd said. “You never know when your name’s going to be called, so you just want to be ready mentally.”
The Redskins’ defense has been especially wracked by injuries this season, with eight of the 11 players who began the season atop the depth chart at their respective positions missing at least one game.
In fact, the team has used a league-high 35 different players on defense this season, including eight who have spent time on the practice squad. Twenty-one of them have been on the field for the Redskins’ first defensive play of the game, technically earning them a start.
Inside linebacker Will Compton, in line to make his fifth start of the season on Saturday, has filled in for both Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson when they’ve experienced knee injuries.
Undrafted out of Nebraska in 2013, Compton has repeatedly tried to make his case for staying on the field not just through his play, but in his preparation. He said he constantly peppers inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti with questions during meetings, especially on things the unit hasn’t yet covered, to show him that he understands his role and is taking it seriously.
“The reality of it is, you’ve got to be prepared,” Compton said. “If you’re out here playing, you’re expected to know it. You can only have the young guy card for so long. If you’re not playing, you’ve got to let them know, ‘We can trust that guy to go in.’”
Phillip Thomas is trying to state a similar case. A fourth-round pick in 2013 who missed all of his first season after injuring his left foot, Thomas has taken over for Brandon Meriweather as the top strong safety for each of the past two games.
Thomas has made significant mistakes in those starts — including a busted coverage on a touchdown reception late in the loss at Indianapolis on Nov. 30 — and he readily admits that he hasn’t been perfect. What he’s trying to do, though, is move on from those plays, showing his coaches that those types of gaffes will not happen again.
“I’ve been thrown out there in Indy and, you know, I wasn’t as great as I wanted to be, but every week, I feel like I’ve improved,” Thomas said. “I’m getting better, and you’re just starting to see my natural ability that I have to go out there and play. Just the more reps I get, the more I’m out there, the more used to this game speed I am, you’ll start to see me make more plays.”
For some players, being out on the field during games isn’t an option. On the offensive line, where continuity between the starters is important, Josh LeRibeus and rookies Morgan Moses and Spencer Long have had to state their cases for playing time during practice. Plus, there’s another factor at play: If they’re not ready, the production of the offense, and the health of the quarterback, are directly at risk.
LeRibeus, in his third season, stepped in at left guard for Shawn Lauvao in two games earlier this season. So, too, did Moses, who filled in for injured left tackle Trent Williams before his season ended because of a sprained foot. Long played just four snaps, all on the final drive, in relief of LeRibeus in a 45-14 loss to the New York Giants in Week 4.
For Long, the year off the field has provided a silver lining. He doesn’t believe he’ll see any action in either of the Redskins’ final two games, either, meaning his entire first season would be summed up by those four plays and a dozen or so snaps on special teams.
“But, I mean, with that said, would I have a better baseline if I had some game experience — or more game experience? Of course,” Long said. “But I’ll still have a way bigger jump than I had coming in as a rookie.”